at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 30 and December 1 and 2

Just when you think you’ve got David Dorfman’s choreography typed, his work moves off in another direction. His strongest dances are tightly focused, neatly trimmed, and somehow emotionally exhausting no matter what they’re about–a personal encounter with mortality, human relationships, or even movement for its own sake.

Horn, a piece for two dancer-musicians created and performed by Dorfman and Dan Froot, begins with one of them slung upside down, hanging by his knees from the other’s shoulders and dangling down his back. The other’s every step is full of effort; one of their saxophones grunts. They lean, slip, and balance. One lies with his leg extended and one supports the other at an unlikely angle, both score and visual image “laid back.” The performers’ constant contact–they’re separated for only seconds at a time–determines their progress across the stage. The risk and trust inherent in their shared weight and balance is reminiscent of contact improvisation. But the dynamics of contact improv enable the performers to wheel, spin, and fall, stressing their fleeting liberation from gravity and the limitations of a single body; the dynamics of Horn impede Dorfman and Froot, emphasizing the precariousness and vulnerability of relationship. The score, too, creates an odd inversion of improvisation: instead of altering and amplifying the musical line, these two struggle for dominance; Dorfman even knocks Froot’s hand away from his instrument. Phil Sandstrom’s moody lighting and Liz Prince’s costumes–softly colored kilts and black oxfords–underscore the impression of unease, disquiet, and heaviness.

The tone shifts with one small, ambiguous gesture–Dorfman ruffles Froot’s cropped hair: it might be another interruption, or it might be a rapprochement. Their hands drift slowly toward each other, and each man slides a hand along the other’s shoulder and caresses the other’s sax–a moment subtly and powerfully erotic, achingly transient. Horn suggests manipulation and menace as well–one dancer wrenches the other’s saxophone away, holds it just out of reach, turns the mouthpiece of his own instrument around, and thrusts it in the other’s face. The conflict eases and intensifies in a series of repeated lifts, interruptions, and shoves, and is finally resolved in unison movement.

Dorfman and Froot finally play together, torsos swinging wildly over and up. They seem to be improvising, inserting spoken musical cues–“One up,” “One more,” “Back home”–and breathy snatches of stage direction around musical phrases. That pleasure, too, is fleeting. Froot stops and backs away toward darkness, disassembling his sax and placing its pieces on the floor; he moves deliberately, inexorably, still focusing intently on Dorfman in a wash of light downstage. Dorfman is left alone and gasping, as affecting an image of loss as any I’ve seen.

Horn uses the saxophone to construct a metaphor for relationship; Slow Run Back–performed by Carol Kueffer and Lisa Race–uses unornamented phrases of repeated gesture to the same end. One dancer stands in the light, knees pulsing with Scott Killian’s celestalike electronic score; her flat hands press downward, her arms extend at shoulder height. The movement of her legs is nearly frantic, her torso ice still, her arms whiplike in intensity and speed. The second dancer enters from the wings, approaching her with a stylized, slow run. She too pulses, gestures; their movement coalesces into unison, and the tempo quickens. She moves away in slow motion; the first runs after her. A fall, one body wraps around the other, a tangle of knees: the would-be escapee is pulled to the floor.

A different set of gestures follows: the dancers’ cupped hands scoop air, cover an ear, a heart, a mouth. Again, that slow-motion escape, the body hurled sideways, the flat hands pressing down. Again and again, the dancer runs away in slow motion; again and again, there’s that slow run back to the action and unspecified conflict of the dance.

One still, straight body, supported only at the shoulder and wrist, is lowered to the floor and into a fleeting embrace. This repeated movement stresses the dancers’ vulnerability, and suggests that perhaps there is some value in relationship after all, a possibility entertained as briefly as in Horn. However, Slow Run Back undergoes a subtle yet unmistakable transformation in its last moments: the women stand slightly apart and repeat now-familiar gestures in unison, but this time the two cupped hands reach out into space as if offering some fragile, precious gift; the lighting warms; their chests and forearms suddenly lift up and back, flinging their faces into a wash of golden light. The image is beautiful and somehow affirmative.

Slow Run Back was performed by a man and a woman in New York last year; I wonder how that casting altered the dance’s images of shifting dependence, psychological bondage, and rapport. Watching Dorfman’s company raises questions about gender roles in dance, not so much because he makes duets for members of the same sex but because his dances and his dancers make other choreographers look like they’re trying too hard to prove that men and women are equal. The difference is less a matter of action than of energy. Dorfman’s dances are radical dances, not liberal ones. The once-extreme notion that women too can speed and lift and carry is so thoroughly metabolized in Dorfman’s work that it doesn’t attract attention; it is the wrenching, risky, almost violent performance style of all the dancers that makes even Dorfman’s most familiar movements so riveting.

The emotional force of Fielder’s Choice stems as much from this performance style as from the movement. The movement of this dance, for the full company, is almost playful, clearly alluding to games people play on the field and off–sliding home, snatching the intended receiver out of the air, frisking a suspect, taking a pratfall–but the style of performance is determined, almost grim. Fielder’s Choice begins gently enough–one woman gives another an easy push from the side of the stage, and she rolls, reels, balances, and cartwheels on her forearms. But when the score (an electronic and vocal work by Christopher Hyams-Hart) shifts, she is hurled about the stage with wrenching force, each dancer visibly absorbing the shock of her impact and heaving her off again in turn.

A dancer launches herself horizontally, flies several feet, and stops, inches off the floor, by wrapping her body around another dancer’s knees. Two dancers run at each other full-out; when they meet and grab each other around the waist, inertia lifts, turns, and drops them to the floor. The movement is athletic, vigorous, vital, and yet the dancers appear unmoved, stone-faced, psychically absent. Look-alike dark jeans and umber, ocher, and rust muscle shirts emphasize the dancers’ cool, anonymous performance style and minimize individual and gender differences. It’s impossible to watch this movement without experiencing a strong kinesthetic response–you feel the force, the risk, each jarring thump in your own stomach, muscles, and bones–yet the dance is oddly unaffecting. Fielder’s Choice evokes a world that’s violent, soulless, and all too familiar.

The surprising intimacy and self-disclosure of Dorfman’s Sleep Story is profoundly moving. Jogging doggedly, Dorfman tells a story of life on tour and phone calls to family; he is interrupted over and over as Ginger Gillespie crashes into him and knocks him to the floor. He tells of visiting a memorial somewhere on the road and watching the other visitors there. One woman captured his attention; she wandered the site, clasping a white plaster hand here, caressing a white plaster breast there, kissing white plaster lips. Even in recollection, his reaction is complicated–affinity tempered with mild distaste. His empathy elicits ours. Every time he crashes to the floor, we feel it; every time he tells of another loss–whether through death or estrangement–we feel that, too. Grief wears him out as the repeated tackles do; by the time he reaches the other side of the performance space, he is breathless, incoherent, and barely able to move–as helpless and stricken as his audience.